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Unit Rankings: 2012 ACC Wide Receivers

Sammy Watkins leads a deep Clemson receiving corps.

Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is still two months away, but it's never too early to project how the year might play out. Athlon will be taking a look at how each position stacks up in the BCS conferences and nationally until the start of the season.

Each unit ranking was evaluated based upon how it will perform in 2012 - not how the team played in 2011.

Ranking the ACC's WR/TE Corps for 2012

1. Clemson – The Tigers had high expectations for Sammy Watkins last year, and the freshman didn’t disappoint. He quickly emerged as Clemson’s No. 1 receiver, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 scores. An off-the-field arrest in May has clouded Watkins’ status for the season opener, but he is not expected to miss more than one or two games. The sophomore isn’t the only returning weapon for Tajh Boyd, as DeAndre Hopkins is back after snagging 72 balls last year. Jaron Brown, Charone Peake, Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries will fill out the rest of the receiving corps. Senior Brandon Ford is expected to step in for Dwayne Allen at tight end. He caught 14 passes for 166 yards and two scores last year.

2. Florida State – The Seminoles don’t have the All-American that Clemson has in Sammy Watkins, but there’s a lot to like about this group in 2012. Rashad Greene caught 38 passes for 596 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman last year and should be in contention for first-team All-ACC honors in 2012. Rodney Smith is back after ranking second on the team with 561 receiving yards last season, while Willie Haulstead returns after missing all of 2011 due to a concussion. Adding to depth will be junior Kenny Shaw, sophomore Christian Green and a breakout candidate in redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin. Nick O’Leary is an emerging threat at tight end and should easily improve upon his totals from last year (12 catches, 164 yards and one touchdown).

3. Virginia Tech – Despite the departures of Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, the Hokies are still in great shape at receiver. D.J. Coles is back after ranking third on the team with 36 receptions and 480 yards last year. Senior Marcus Davis averaged 17 yards per reception in 2011 and should contend for All-ACC honors in 2012. This group will get a boost with the return of Dyrell Roberts. He missed nearly all of last year with an arm injury but has 63 career catches for 965 yards and five scores. A player to watch will be incoming freshman Joel Caleb. He ranked as the No. 95 recruit in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and should push for playing time.

4. Duke – Conner Vernon hasn’t received much national recognition, but he is on the verge of finishing his career as one of the ACC’s most prolific receivers. He ranks seventh in career receptions and needs 35 to pass Aaron Kelly (Clemson) for the No. 1 spot. Vernon ranks 16th in conference history with 2,675 yards and needs 843 in 2012 to pass Peter Warrick (Florida State) for first place. Donovan Varner and tight end Cooper Helfet have expired their eligibility, and the Blue Devils need sophomore Jamison Crowder or freshman Nick Hill to help take the pressure off of Vernon. Replacing Helfet at tight end is expected to be Issac Blakeney or Braxton Deaver.

5. North Carolina – In order to make new coach Larry Fedora’s spread attack work, the Tar Heels will need some players to step up at receiver. Senior Erik Highsmith is the first choice to replace Dwight Jones as the No. 1 target. Highsmith grabbed 51 receptions for 726 yards and five scores last year and should see his numbers increase in 2012. Sophomore T.J. Thorpe is ready for an increased role in the offense, while seniors Todd Harrelson and Jheranie Boyd have one more shot to make an impact. Sophomores Sean Tapley and Reggie Wilkins will battle for snaps, but incoming freshman Quinshad Davis could crack the receiver rotation in the fall. Eric Ebron appears to be the likely starter at tight end.

6. NC State – The concern over losing tight end George Bryan and speedy receiver T.J. Graham is lessened somewhat by the return of quarterback Mike Glennon. The senior was solid in his first year as the starter, throwing for 3,054 yards and 31 scores. Running back James Washington is the team’s leading returning receiver after catching 42 passes last year. Tobais Palmer will likely be the new No. 1 target for Glennon and he grabbed 37 receptions for 496 yards in 2011. Bryan Underwood flashed potential as a freshman last year by nabbing 16 receptions for 226 yards. This group will be counting on juniors Rashard Smith and Quintin Payton to fill the No. 3 and No. 4 roles, while Mario Carter and Asa Watson will battle to replace Bryan as the starting tight end.

7. Maryland – This group wasn’t a strength last year, but the Terrapins also dealt with inconsistency at quarterback and a change in offensive scheme. There’s a new coordinator once again in 2012, but there’s hope for the offense to turn things around. Three of the top four players at the top of Maryland’s catch total from last season are back, and there’s a lot of potential surrounding freshman Stefon Diggs. Kevin Dorsey, Kerry Boykins and Diggs will likely round out the starting receiving corps, while Devin Burns, Marcus Leak and Nigel King are in the mix for snaps. With the struggles of Maryland’s passing attack last year, tight end Matt Furstenburg went largely unnoticed. The senior could be the best in the ACC at his position in 2012.

8. Miami – In addition to the question marks surrounding the quarterback position, the Hurricanes suffered some significant losses at this position. Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin combined for 87 receptions and 1,420 yards last year but both are catching passes in the NFL this summer. Allen Hurns is Miami’s top returning receiver (31 catches) and will have to take on a bigger role in 2012. Phillip Dorsett grabbed 14 receptions as a freshman last year and will be in the mix to start this season. Sophomore Rashawn Scott and senior Kendal Thompkins will have to hold off a charge for playing time from incoming freshmen Angelo Jean-Louis, Malcolm Lewis and Robert Lockhart. Clive Walford had a solid freshman campaign – catching 18 passes for 172 yards and one touchdown – and is expected to increase his numbers in 2012.

9. Virginia – There’s no question the Cavaliers are back on track after winning eight games last season. However, to take the next step and win the ACC title, the passing attack has to get better. Quarterback Michael Rocco settled into the job last year and another offseason to work as the starter will help Virginia’s offense. This unit will miss Kris Burd, but junior Tim Smith is an emerging weapon after averaging 17.1 yards per catch in 2011. Darius Jennings turned in a solid freshman campaign, catching 20 passes for 239 yards and a score. Sophomores Dominique Terrell, E.J. Scott and Miles Gooch will compete for time, while tight end is in good shape with Colter Phillips and Jake McGee returning.

10. Wake Forest – Chris Givens emerged as one of the ACC’s top receivers last year but decided to leave a year early for the NFL Draft. Without Givens, the Demon Deacons are counting on Michael Campanaro to have another big season in 2012. He caught 73 passes for 833 yards and two touchdowns last year and will be the No. 1 target for quarterback Tanner Price. After Campanaro is where Wake Forest needs playmakers to emerge. Senior Terence Davis caught 20 passes for 269 yards and five scores last season but must have a bigger impact in 2012. Junior Quan Rucker, sophomore Brandon Terry and freshmen Airyn Willis and Sherman Ragland will provide depth, while tight end is an area of concern with very little experience returning.

11. Boston College – The Eagles ranked a disappointing 11th in the ACC in passing offense last year, but there’s hope for a turnaround in 2012. New coordinator Doug Martin did a good job of improving New Mexico State’s offense last season, and this group returns quarterback Chase Rettig and the top four statistical receivers from 2011. Rettig is a work in progress, but he needs more help from this group. Bobby Swigert led the team with 44 receptions for 470 yards, while Colin Larmond averaged 15.5 yards per catch. Swigert, Larmond and tight end Chris Pantale are a nice trio to build around, but Boston College needs more big-play ability from the rest of the group.

12. Georgia Tech – Considering the Yellow Jackets averaged 12.8 passing attempts per game last season, possessing an elite receiving corps isn’t essential to make the option offense work. However, this unit was hit hard with the early departure of standout Stephen Hill to the NFL, while Tyler Melton finished his eligibility. With those two players departing, Georgia Tech has no receivers returning with any career receptions. Sophomores Jeff Greene and Darren Waller need a big season as the likely starters, while senior Chris Jackson and junior Jeremy Moore will push for snaps. The Yellow Jackets won’t need an All-ACC standout, but a receiver or two needs to emerge as a downfield threat to keep defenses honest. 

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

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